‘Skyscraper’ Finds Dwayne Johnson Climbing Into an Inferno of Action Absurdity

There are certain rites of passage for muscled movie heroes. They must drive fast, be capable of scaling enormous buildings, jump through spinning propellers, engage in combat and save families for untold movie time without ever dropping dead from exhaustion. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does all this and more, including the required holding of a bridge with his bare hands, in the lively but absurd “Skyscraper.” All the ingredients of a bad 1990s “Die Hard” wannabe are here, including villains with foreign accents, a hot wife in peril, illogical dialogue and a hero with a prosthetic leg which never gets in the way.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI agent who was seriously wounded during a hostage situation in some rural cabin. The incident cost him a leg and a decade later he flies to Hong Kong as a security consultant to examine The Pearl, touted as the world’s tallest building (of course). The lavish construction, complete with an indoor park, is the brainchild of Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), a billionaire dreamer. Sawyer’s task is to approve all of the building’s security functions so Zhao can begin letting people live in the structure’s upper level apartments. The tycoon is already allowing Sawyer and his family, wife and surgeon Sarah (Neve Campbell), kids Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell), live in one of the apartments. But just as Sawyer prepares to make the final inspection, a team of armed men led by a Scandinavian bad guy played by Roland Møller enter the Pearl and set it on fire, trapping Sawyer’s family inside. Zhao also finds himself trapped in the inferno. As Sawyer races to save his loved ones, he is also framed for the fire. With the cops following his every move he will now scale, jump and crash into the Pearl…and you can imagine the rest.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber , who also wrote the script, has made the movie equivalent of a blender in which every action movie cliché is tossed in and let out in a rather rambling style. Thurber is obviously trying to make a sort of retread to the bombastic, macho action flicks of the 1990s, but the actual good ones in the batch were few and far between. The premise is very basic, tough guy must battle both the elements and armed (usually foreign) villains. Sylvester Stallone tackled a flooded New York tunnel in 1996’s “Daylight,” Harrison Ford as the president took down Russian terrorists in 1997’s “Air Force One.” Some may remember when Pierce Brosnan battled a spewing volcano in “Dante’s Peak.” “Skyscraper” lacks the silly, testosterone- fueled charm of those movies, instead inadvertently becoming a farce. Take the casting and characters for example. Dwayne Johnson is both blessed and cursed as a gifted actor meant only for comedy, so moments where he attempts to be serious turn into pure humor, especially when his ash-smeared face screams, “Sarah!” Byron Mann plays the originally-named Inspector Wu, who has no purpose other than to stand in front of a monitor and literally tell us what we are seeing. Sawyer hijacks a crane to smash some of the Pearl’s windows and Wu insightfully says things like, “he’s trying to get in.” The villains are walking cardboard cutouts. Roland Møller is a rehash of the European bad guys in every high-tech thriller, walking around in commando gear and making statement with poetic villainy (“burn a man’s house and you will see what he truly loves”).

But the movie does not realize it is a comedy, so it feels awkwardly bad. Moments which should be intense are actually a total laughingstock. You can instantly guess where everything leads. When Zhao shows Sawyer a room full of reflecting mirrors which trick you about where someone is standing, it is obvious know will be a shootout here later on. All dialogue is meant for explaining the entire plot, including what pad controls what functions in the building. In one scene Sawyer spews detailed instructions so fast to Sarah before she enters an elevator, with an inferno raging around mind you, that we’re certain she’s as good as doomed. When Zhao explains to Sawyer why the Euro commandos want to burn his building the idea is so convoluted you wish this were a mere case of insurance fraud.

Oddly enough, there seems to be little reason for making Sawyer have a prosthetic leg, especially since every major stunt or action sequences carries on without the slightest hint that the guy differs physically from your usual buffed action hero. This could have been a feature put to great use, but it goes nowhere. There is just one moment where that leg comes in handy to pry open some doors. A preposterous fight scene in an apartment early on, complete with close calls with kitchen knives, has one ill-planned shot of Johnson wobbling towards his opponent. When characters in this kind of movie are missing a limb, the story can use the feature for greater tension and heroism, here it is just an extra flourish Thurber appears to have randomly thrown into the screenplay. The same goes for a group of hired guns wandering around outside the Pearl, led by a character (not kidding dear reader) credited as “Asian Lady,” played by Beatrice King who is one of those assassins with a black belt. The character has zero purpose other than to steal a pad and reappear later to get her faced bashed in by Sarah.

But do not completely despair. “Skyscraper” still has one or two decent moments of action movie revelry. There’s better comedy in a moment involving Johnson and a hammer, and you can never get too many of those scenes where he somehow leaps from a crane into the Pearl, with Japanese onlookers gasping while watching everything unfold on the TV news (a recurring motif during the movie). Johnson’s best moment comes when he must hold a bridge for Sarah and the kids to cross over scorching flames, trying ever so hard to hold on as his loved ones tip-toe to safety. By the time Johnson is caught in a fight scene where he somehow produces a bejeweled sword from his pants, we can only raise our hands and surrender to the movie’s rambling editing style. There is of course the Pearl, which looks like any other fancy apartment complex in the interior shots but Thurber gives us some decent explosions and shots of scorching flames.“Skyscraper” is so preposterous it avoids becoming boring, for the wrong reasons of course. It scales the great heights of goofiness.

Skyscraper” releases July 13 in theaters nationwide.